Weight Loss in 1920s America: The Reducing Craze

In the 1920s a new fitness craze hit white America called reducing. As the name suggests, reducing had everything to do with losing weight but very little to do with exercise and correct nutrition.

This was no ordinary weight loss craze. It was an all encompassing movement involving popular media, emerging business markets and a growing white consciousness about the importance of health. So popular had reducing become that by 1925, a contemporary US journalist remarked

“Reducing has become a national pastime, a craze, a national fanaticism, a frenzy.”

Hillel Schwartz would later characterize this craze as less than ideal “the “Roaring Twenties were also the calculating, calorie controlled, ounce-conscious Grim twenties.”

So how did reducing sweep the US nation?

Growing Body Conscious

As detailed previously on this site, by the early 1920s sections of white America had become increasingly concerned with bodily health. This was due to a number of different factors ranging from a supposed crisis of white masculinity, the rise of popular sports and so on.

The rising interest in health was met by the rise of mass production. Things such as indoor plumbing, heating, electricity had become commonplace by the 1920s and with such necessities becoming the norm, Americans had more and more disposable income to spend on conspicuous consumption. Consumers were promised that certain brands or products would make you happier, healthier and more successful.

The emerging health industry was no different. As men like Charles Atlas and Bernarr McFadden were telling men that muscles made the man, women were being fed similar advertisements about women who had reduced, and thereby become successful.

Roberta Pollack Seid went so far as to argue that as industrialism reinforced aesthetic standards of the body, the body began to be seen as efficient, effective, economical, and beautiful. In effect bodies became transformed from mere flesh and bone to industrial machines, something reflected in the advertisements for many of the new reducing products.

article-0-1737E63A000005DC-416_634x787A 1920s Reducing Ad

So how did women reduce?

Diet and exercise right? Well not exactly.

Reducing products came in the form of creams, soaps and tablets. Much like the concurrent constipation marketing of the era, consumers were told that they could buy their way to health, fitness and longevity (something which has sadly remained in the diet industry in the US).

So what prompted white American women to part with their money for snake oil soaps, creams and pills? Whilst scholars still debate about the underlying case for the rise of reducing, two key influences are repeatedly singled out, namely the growing American consumer culture and the rise of Hollywood.

Reducing and the Rising Consumer Culture

1920s America saw the beginnings of what we know as a consumer culture emerge. According to that great bastion of knowledge, Wikipedia, Consumer Culture is a social and economic order and ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-greater amounts.

But it’s more than that. Consumer culture is predicated on the idea that acquisition of goods or indeed of health, contains an intrinsic value. Mike Featherstone has argued that, “Consumer culture uses advertising to generate continual dissatisfaction and self consciousness, especially in the age of physical appearance to get people to buy exercise courses, pills etc.”

In the 1920s, advertisements began to emerge with increasing regularity with messages pleading with readers to buy Product X/Y/Z in order to be happy. This was especially true in the case of reducing, where women were told that to be happy was to be slim.

To be fat was to be unhappy. The number of reducing advertisements in magazines tripled from 1900 to 1930 and the number of snake oil treatments rose almost as rapidly.

The main vehicle for such messages? Magazines dealing with the emerging power of Hollywood.

Showbiz and Slimming

Hollywood, and popular media in the US, had a lot to do with the reducing craze of the 1920s, as it was during this period that the rise of the Star truly began to sweep America. No longer were actors and actresses peripheral figures. They were now seen as contributing to, and influencing the zeitgeist. Magazines began to emerge detailing the routines of actresses, filled with titillating rumors and photos of the stars.

Richard DeCordova classified this process as the creation of a Star Discourse. DeCordova argued that the movie Star’s influence  (be they male or female), began to expand beyond the cinema and into the emerging consumer culture. Actors and actresses became brand ambassadors for a new way of life concerned with material consumption and health. Health in many ways became the latest thing to be consumed.

So when photos emerged on a weekly basis of slim female stars, US marketers began to promote products to turn the average woman into a Hollywood star. The parallels with the current debate about body image and size 0 models are particularly apt in this case. Hollywood stars became a mirror for measuring one’s own physique against. In much the same way that men had looked at Eugen Sandow in the 1900s for ideals of the perfect man, 1920s US women were looking towards Hollywood as a means of judging their own appearance.

A dangers combination that led to a cacophony of dangerous and frankly useless, reducing products emerging in the US market.

The End of Reducing

For the greater part of the 1920s reducing in all its various forms continued to be pushed by US marketers. As consumers demanded more and more, advertisements, endorsements and sponsorships increased year on year. It wasn’t until the Wall Street Crash of 1929 that the reducing craze was halted in its tracks.

Whilst 1929 may have marked the formal death of reducing products, it’s fair to say that the factors that drove the craze, namely body consciousness, consumer culture and popular media, continue to drive our own health fads, Whilst we may sneer at the ridiculousness of the reducing advertisements, the emphasis on appearance, on consuming health and on quick fixes to weight loss, has remained to the present day.

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